Hall of Famer is forward-thinker
As one of the youngest inductees into the Plastics Hall of Fame at age 60, Karlheinz Bourdon already has carved out an impressive career in the plastics machinery sector and shows no signs of slowing down. Having spent most of his career globetrotting for various units of KraussMaffei and Milacron, he now is heading the integration of KraussMaffei and China National Chemical Corp., which bought KM in 2016. Additionally, he is very active in a number of European trade associations, including Euromap, VDMA and the Fraunhofer Institute.
He spoke with PMM contributor Robert Grace at NPE2018 in Orlando on the day after his Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
You earned a mechanical engineering degree in 1985 from RWTH Aachen University and a doctorate from its IKV plastics school. You knew early on that you wanted to work in plastics. Why?
Bourdon: That had a lot to do with the IKV, the Institute for Plastics Processing, and its leader — at that time Professor [Georg] Menges. He was a very charismatic person, and the atmosphere at the institute was very proactive and future-oriented. I started with materials science, but very quickly I moved into the injection molding department. Always for me, the machinery industry was very attractive. For one of my first projects, I got to go to several of the [German machinery] companies with our equipment and do measurings on the machines of their [energy] efficiency. That was 35 years ago, and we have the same theme still!
You’ve given a lot of credit to Menges, a fellow hall of famer, and referred to him as a mentor. How did he influence your career?
Bourdon: We didn’t have too much communication, but whenever we saw each other, he wanted to know what we were working on, our progress, and he reminded me to look at the work of my predecessors. He gave me good advice about what would, from his point of view, be the direction for the future of the project. Those were very clear and open discussions, no accusations, just suggestions on “why don’t you look at this?”
Your Ph.D. thesis was titled “Computer-
Aided Set-up of Injection Molding Machines.” How did you come to recognize the role that computers would play in molding?
Bourdon: One of the most important projects we had involved CIM — computer-integrated manufacturing. We had two injection molding machines, one rubber and one thermoplastic machine, and we had to insert the rubber part into the thermoplastic machine. The two machines were connected with an industrial robot. We used simulated calculations to … set up the machine. It was very exciting because we knew this was the latest and greatest in our industry. There were maybe four or five institutions worldwide doing scientific work on the same thing I did, and you knew the people. It was competitive, but also cooperative. That was the beginning of what I found to be very important later in my career — international networking.
What role will automation play in the future?
Bourdon: It will play a tremendous role. The percentage of new machines that we [Krauss-
Maffei] deliver that are equipped with automation has been increasing over the past 10 years and today is something like 50 percent. I would say that in 10 years, almost every machine will be automated. Meanwhile, Industry 4.0 goes back to what we tried to do with CIM — starting with the production of the mold, you create data. Our idea was to collect this data and to use this data to inform other process steps, and that’s the idea of 4.0 today. What we didn’t have [back then] was standardized interfaces, or the computer power to do in-line, closed-loop control of the process. I was convinced that would happen, for sure, but we couldn’t execute it.
You started your career at KraussMaffei but moved to Klöckner Ferromatik in 1992. While there, you helped to drive some key technological advances. Why did all-electric technology interest you?
Bourdon: Because of my previous work with the efficiency of injection molding machines, I saw that the hydraulic machines were relatively inefficient at that time. We did a lot of measurements and saw that the savings [with all-electrics] were about 50 percent. That was state-of-the-art technology at that time. We [at Klöckner Ferromatik] were the first in the Western world [when we introduced the Elektra in 1992].
Milacron bought Klöckner Ferromatik in 1994, and you moved to work at Milacron’s U.S. headquarters in 2003. How did that affect your global vision of the industry?
Bourdon: At that time, I was the engineering and R&D director of Ferromatik in Malterdingen in Germany. Milacron in 1996 asked me to give up this job and become director of manufacturing in Germany. I really thought twice about that, because I loved my engineering job. But I took the job, and we introduced a lean concept that was very successful, and I learned about how to make money with manufacturing if you do things right or lose a lot of money if you don’t do things right. In 2000, I became CEO of Ferromatik.
But then they offered me the position of being senior managing director of plastics machinery Europe, to include Ferromatik [injection molding] and Uniloy [blow molding], still based in Europe. But in 2003, I moved to Ohio and became vice president for global injection molding for Milacron for three months, before I succeeded Harold Faig as president for global plastics machinery. [Bourdon returned to Germany in 2007 and worked for a year as a consultant before rejoining KraussMaffei in Munich as CEO of its injection molding business.]
You headed Milacron’s global plastics machinery business from 2003 to 2007, with a huge portfolio that included injection, extrusion and blow molding. What did you learn about the differences between these diverse sectors?
Bourdon: Injection molding is a more standardized business. The machines are more similar to each other. Extrusion is more project-driven. And blow molding is more related to packaging, and it’s somewhere in between.
What evolutions in machinery technology do you think have had the most impact on the industry?
Bourdon: Three things: the tie-bar-less machine from Engel; the two-platen machine from KraussMaffei; and all-electric technology from the Japanese and Ferromatik Milacron. There were other very interesting machines. At KM, we produced, I think in 2009, a 4,000-ton, double-spin, three-color press for the BMW i3 all-electric, all-plastic city vehicle.
It was after you rejoined KraussMaffei in 2008 that you really began to apply your expertise to streamlining organizational structures and aligning efforts between countries and cultures. Tell us about that.
Bourdon: In 2012, we had a reorganization, and there was one segment made from the combined KraussMaffei injection and Netstal injection, and I took the role of being senior VP of technology for both brands. We integrated operations in Germany and Switzerland and developed a manufacturing plant in Slovakia.
What’s on your wish list for the next generation of machinery?
Bourdon: Industry 4.0 is our opportunity. It’s the opportunity of plastics. Because we can then do things to make it easier to create plastic parts, and do it more efficiently, to do it in undeveloped countries because of the intelligence that the machines and the systems will show. I’m a strong promoter of standardized interfaces. I worked for decades with VDMA and Euromap to do this. Some people see this interface thing as a form of protection[ism]. I don’t believe that; I think that if you do this on an international basis, it propels your business. Because for the customers, it makes it easier.
What is your greatest contribution to the industry? What would you like to be your legacy?
Bourdon: My contribution has to do with all-electric machines, and it has to do with always supporting and promoting new processes. Today, we have new surface technologies like [KraussMaffei’s] CoverForm and ColorForm. I worked on this spin-form technology, for both companies. Everything that’s out of the mainstream. You have to be realistic and see if there is real business being created from these ideas or not, but if you’re not open to new ideas, you don’t get to the next step.
My legacy? I would like to work on turning our business of plastics into a more circular economy. It’s more than recycling. We need to get organized with how to deal with the waste of plastics. It’s not a plastics problem itself, it’s how people deal with litter. The press is damaging the good image of plastics, so we need to deal with it. Companies like ours can help to build up new processes and to produce the machines accordingly to handle these new processes. And for what applications can we apply biomaterials? I feel that our industry should contribute our know-how to make this recycling and this circular economy effort easier for the people.